Character Directory

KING CLAUDIUS

King is the murderer and royal successor of Hamlet’s father and husband of his victim's widow, Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. The central issue of the play is the conflict between Hamlet's desire for vengeance against the King—to which he has been sworn by his father's Ghost—and his recognition that revenge would involve him in evil himself. 

The King's crime, by his own confession, 'is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon't' (3.3.36-37)—that is, he has followed Cain, the first criminal, in murdering his brother. Cain is referred to several times in the play—e.g., in 1.2.105 and 5.1.76—reminding us of the King's heinous offence. 

Hamlet repeatedly compares his father and King Claudius. Although he is surprised when the Ghost tells him of the murder, he is not surprised, a few lines later, to learn the killer's identity, for his 'prophetic soul' (1.5.41) has already apprehended his uncle's character. Earlier, in his first soliloquy, he despises the King as an inferior successor to his father, 'so excel lent a king, that was to this / [as] Hyperion [is] to a satyr' (1.2.139-140). He elaborates on this comparison when he upbraids his mother in 3.4. 

In 1.1 an ideal of kingship is established in recollections of the heroic achievements of Hamlet's father and in the sense of dread occasioned by his death; the implicit contrast with Claudius persists throughout the play, as we become aware that the King's crime is the source of the evil that permeates the play's world, the 'something . . . rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.4.90). In a telling detail, the King is closely associated with excessive drinking, presented as a characteristically Danish failing. He often proposes toasts, the rowdy behavior of his court is noted, and Hamlet finds it likely that he would be 'distempered . . . With drink' (3.2.293-294) or 'drunk asleep' (3.3.89). Appropriately, Claudius finally falls victim to his own poisoned wine. 

Despite the King's distinctly evil nature, he does have some redeeming features. In fact, some commentators believe that the playwright intended King Claudius as an admirable ruler and man and that Hamlet's contrary opinion is a result of his tragic insanity. Most critics, however, find the King's wicked nature abundantly evident; his good features exemplify Shakespeare's genius for providing fully human portraits. The King is clearly intelligent and quick witted, particularly in 4.5.112-152, where he defuses the coup by Laertes with smooth talk and converts the rebel into an accomplice. In 1.2, as he disposes of court business, we see that he is a reasonable man, a competent diplomat, and a generally able monarch. The King even reveals, however fleetingly, his bad conscience about his crimes when he compares his 'deed to [his] painted word' (3.1.49-54) and when he tries to pray in 3.3. However, as he recognizes, 'Words without thoughts never to heaven go' (3.3.98), and, unable to repent sincerely, he continues in his evil ways. 

Beginning with his recruitment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, the King schemes cruelly against the prince. His two death plots—to have him executed in England and to arrange a rigged fencing match—are particularly vile. The King recruits Laertes after Hamlet escapes from England, but when, at the climax, his follower repents and seeks the prince's forgiveness, the King is left as the sole focus of our sense of evil in the play. When Hamlet kills him, he cries, 'Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane' (5.2.330); his villainy is emphatically described and condemned. Horatio leaves us with a final summary of the King's role when he refers to his 'carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts' (5.2.386).  

Shakespeare may have named Claudius, or the name may have come from his source, the UR-HAMLET, but in either case the King was named for a Roman emperor, Claudius I (10 B.C.-54 A.D.), who was regarded in Shakespeare's day as a prime example of an evil ruler. (His modern reputation is considerably better, in part because of Robert Graves' novel /, Claudius [1934].) Upon his accession to the throne in 41 A.D., Claudius married his niece Agrippina, an incestuous relationship that may have influenced the choice of names. Agrippina later poisoned Claudius and was herself murdered by her son, Nero, as Hamlet recollects in 3.2.384-385.

 
HAMLET

Hamlet is the crown prince of Denmark. Prince Hamlet is required by his murdered father's Ghost to take vengeance on the present King, his uncle, who committed the murder and then married the widow of his victim, Hamlet's mother, the Queen. Hamlet's troubled response to this situation, his disturbed relations with those around him, and his eventual acceptance of his destiny constitute the play. 

Hamlet is almost universally considered one of the most remarkable characters in all of literature. His language, extraordinary even in Shakespeare's oeuvre, sweeps us up in a seemingly endless stream of brilliant impressions. He does not often use the similes and metaphors of ordinary speech, instead pouring forth fully fleshed images that convey the excitement of his thought. His psychology is stirringly genuine because it is humanly complex; he is filled with passion and contradiction, and his emotional life develops credibly through the course of the play. His personality, his attitudes and ideas, even his subconscious, have intrigued readers and theatre-goers for centuries, and copious commentary on him is still being written. Many writers have supposed that Hamlet's troubled mind reflects a traumatic development in Shakespeare's life, although there is almost no evidence of the playwright's personal life to confirm or refute this theory. 

Although Hamlet foreshadows the psychologically realistic characters of modern drama, Shakespeare did not create the prince's emotional life for its own sake but rather as a vehicle for presenting a philosophical attitude. Hamlet's troubled mind demonstrates the development of an acceptance of life despite the existence of human evil, and this is the dominant theme of the play. The critical element in this development is the prince's recognition of evil in himself; in containing both good and evil, he represents the dual nature of humankind. The reconciliation of humanity with its own flawed nature is a central concern of Shakespeare's work, and in Hamlet an evolution of attitudes leading to this conclusion is displayed in a grand and powerful portrait. 

Although he can deal in a practical manner with the world of intrigue that surrounds him, Hamlet is more a thinker than a doer, and he directs our attention often to his own concerns, large issues such as suicide, the virtues and defects of humankind, and the possibility of life after death. Above all, his circumstances demand that he consider the nature of evil. 

We first encounter the prince as he struggles to deal with his father's death. In 1.2.76-86 he describes his mournful state; dressed in funereal black, conscious that he looks dejected and can be seen to have been weeping, he nevertheless asserts that this appearance cannot convey the depths of his grief. By focusing on the difference between appearance and reality—a difference that here is merely one of degree since his inner state is at least superficially indicated by his dress and demeanor—Hamlet betrays the confused perception that comes with great emotional trauma.  In the early stages of grief, the ordinary aspects of existence seem absurdly thin and weak, inappropriate to the mourner's overwhelming sense of pain and loss. 

In this state of mind, Hamlet is strongly offended by his mother's hasty and incestuous remarriage, even before he learns from the Ghost of his father's murder. He sees his father as an ideal man and a great king, an assumption supported by other opinions in the play and by the dignity and grandeur of the Ghost. He is thus appalled by his mother's willingness to accept an inferior man, a libertine and—as is soon revealed—a murderer. Hamlet comes to see his mother as evil and is devastated by the idea. Although he is the son of a godlike father, he is also the son of a mother who readily beds with 'a satyr' (1.2.140). Plunged into despondency, he rejects life, saying, 'How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world! . . . things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely' (1.2.133-136). This attitude is further expressed in one of literature's most powerful evocations of mental depression, 'I have of late ... lost all my mirth [and] this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air ... appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, . . . and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither . . .' (2.2.295-309). 

He declares that his life is not worth 'a pin's fee' (1.4.65); indeed, he longs for death, as he declares more than once, wishing, for instance,'... that this too too sullied flesh would melt' (1.2.129) and declaring death '. . . a consummation / Devoutly to be wish'd' (3.1.63-64), though in both of these speeches he also rejects suicide, once because of the religious injunction against it and once out of fear of the afterlife.  

His disgust with life turns, therefore, to a revulsion against sex, the mechanism of life's continuance. Not only does sex generate life, with its evils, but the attractions of sex have led his mother to adultery and incest. Though some commentators have supposed that Hamlet unconsciously desires his mother sexually, as in the Oedipus complex hypothesized by Freud, such a theory is unnecessary, for the play's world provides the prince with real, not fantasized, parental conflicts: his father is dead, and he is the enemy of his mother's lover. However, the facts of Hamlet's situation, dire as they are, are less important than the interpretation that he puts upon them. Plainly influenced by his disgust with sex, he is obsessed by the image of his mother's 'incestuous sheets' (1.2. 157); he virtually ignores the political consequences of his father's murder—the murderer's succession as King—and focuses on the sexual implications, and, most significantly, he transfers his mother's sexual guilt to Ophelia.  

Hamlet denies his love for Ophelia in 3.1.117-119, though only after affirming it two lines earlier, and Shakespeare plainly intended us to take Hamlet s courtship of Ophelia before the play begins as having been sincere. Ophelia's shyness in .3-110-114 along with her regretful one in 3.1.97-99 make this clear. Moreover, Hamlet's intensity and confusion as he parts from Ophelia-in the strange behavior she recounts in 2.1.77-100 and in his famous insistence that she enter a nunnery in 3.1.1-151—indicate his great emotional involvement However although he apparently loved her earlier, Hamlet does not actually respond to Ophelia as a person in the course of the play. Theirs is not a love story but rather a dramatization of Hamlet's rejection of her, and of love, marriage, and sex. 'Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?' he cries in 3.1.121-122, and he immediately goes on to identify himself with the world's evil-doers. Hamlet cannot avoid his sexual desire for Ophelia, as his obscene jesting in 3.2.108-119 demonstrates, but this episode is also a plain indication of the disgust he now feels for sex. His attitude symbolizes his condemnation of life, a viewpoint that he overcomes by the end of the play. Hamlet's delay in seeking revenge may similarly be seen as a psychological trait emphasized to make a philosophical point. The prince's procrastination is not immediately obvious, for not much time seems to pass and only one plain opportunity for revenge presents itself (m the -prayer scene', 3.3) but Hamlet insists upon its importance, berating himself as a rogue and peasant slave . . . / A dull and muddy mettled rascal' (2.2.544, 562); his assumption of guilt is clearly excessive. Though committed to the idea that revenge is his duty, Hamlet senses the evil in the obligation sent from -heaven and hell' (2.2.580), and he resists. 

Once the King's guilt is firmly established by his response to the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet falls victim to a pathological rage. This is first shown in his chilling resolution, ' 'TIS now the very witching time of night, / ... Now could I drink hot blood . . .' (3.2.379-381). This state of mind persists as he demands eternal damnation for the King, not merely murderous revenge, and therefore avoids killing him at prayer in 3.3. Then in 3.4 he vents his hysterical rage at his mother and kills Polonius with a furious gesture in the process. This crime lacks even the justification of revenge. Whatever his faults, Polonius was innocent of Hamlet's fathers murder and moreover, his death leads to the insanity and subsequent death of Ophelia, whose blamelessness is absolute. Hamlet's avoidance of one evil has thus involved him in another, greater one. 

Hamlet's rage and his descent into evil are central to the play, both literally, occurring near its mid-point, and figuratively, for his deeds trigger its climactic development. Polonius' son, Laertes, seeks revenge and eventually kills Hamlet, and more immediately, Polonius' death results in Hamlet's exile, during which he finds his salvation.

In Act 5 we find that Hamlet has changed. He meditates on death in the graveyard in 5;1, but now death is neither welcoming nor fearful; it is merely the normal human destiny and the prince s remarks are satirical thrusts at the living. His memories of Yorick are pleasurable appreciations of the past, as well as occasions for sardonic humor. Ophelia s funeral triggers a last explosion of emotion as Hamlet assaults Laertes, but although this resembles his fury of Act 3 here Hamlet restrains himself and departs. His outburst has been cathartic, producing two significant declarations. As he challenges Laertes Hamlet proclaims himself -Hamlet the Dane (5.1.251), at last accepting his role as his fathers heir-Denmark once his -prison' (2.2.243) is now his kingdom-and at the same time implicitly challenging the King. Perhaps given courage or awareness by this pronouncement he goes on to assert the feelings he had suppressed in his anger and depression, stating ‘I lov d Ophelia' (5.1.264). The prince is no longer in the grip of his grief.  

In 5 2 Hamlet confides to Horatio the cause of the change in his sense of himself: by impulsively rewriting his death warrant to save himself, he has realized that his hesitations and ponderings had been beside the point. He sees that -Our indiscretion sometime serves us well / When our deep plots do pale/There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will . . .' (5.2.8-11). He acknowledger that he cannot carry out the revenge called for by the Ghost without committing murder, the very crime he must avenge. He accepts that he must be evil in order to counter evil. He senses a basic truth: the capacity for evil exists in him because he is human. In accepting his destiny, Hamlet also prepares for his own death. He senses his end approaching, as the King's plot takes form, but he remains composed, saying-There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is't to leave betimes? Let be 5 2 215-220) This final remark—since we know so 1ittle of the world, it is no great matter to leave it early reflects the prince's awareness of the futility of his earlier philosophical inquiries. It is more important to live and then to die, coming to terms with one s fate. 

Hamlet's salvation-his awareness of his human failings-comes only with his death. However, Horatio's prayer for him, -[May] flights of angels sing thee to thy rest- (5.2.365), offers the hope of an eternal release from the stresses the prince has undergone. the playwright leaves us assured his tragic hero has found peace.

POLONIUS

Polonius is a minister of the King of Denmark. Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes, loves intrigue and resorts to espionage whenever possible. He volunteers to spy for the King on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother, the Queen, in 3.4, and when Hamlet discovers the intruder, he kills him. The prince stabs through a curtain, so he does not know who his victim is until he is dead, but he feels no remorse for the deed, remarking coolly that his victim has learned that 'to be too busy is some danger' (3.4.33). This killing is the central event of the play, hastening Hamlet's exile to England and triggering Laertes' vengeance on the prince.

In Hamlet, Polonius is a pedantic bore and an hypocrite. These traits may derive from the comical Pantaloon of the Italian commedia dell'arte. (Courtesy of Culver Pictures, Inc.) danger' (3.4.33). This killing is the central event of the play, hastening Hamlet's exile to England and triggering Laertes' vengeance on the prince. 

Polonius' deviousness and dishonesty exemplify the state of moral decay in Denmark. After he offers Laertes his famous advice, 'to thine own self be true .. . Thou canst not then be false to any man' (1.3.78-80), his hypocrisy reveals itself, for in 2.1 he sets a spy on Laertes, offering detailed instructions in espionage and duplicity to Reynaldo. He bars Ophelia from any contact with Hamlet, presuming that the prince's professions of love cannot be truthful, perhaps arguing from self-knowledge, and when it appears that he was wrong and that the prince has gone mad from frustrated love, he spies on the lovers himself. 

However, Polonius' murder is not to be taken as justifiable; much of its point depends on our recognition of it as an evil act, leading us to the further awareness that Hamlet is capable of evil. Also, Polonius is not completely without good points, making his killing more reprehensible than it would appear if he were an absolute villain. For example, while his means are deplorable, Polonius clearly cares about his son, and his involvement in his welfare serves to cause Laertes to remain memorable through his long absence from the play (between 1.3 and 4.5); similarly, Polonius is a fool in his handling of Ophelia, but there is no doubt of his paternal concern, even if it can be overlaid with ulterior interests at the same time. Ophelia's evident heartbreak at his death in her 'mad scene' (4.5) testifies to his adequacy as a parent.

Polonius is also a comic character at times. Speaking to the King and Queen of Hamlet's alleged madness, he begins by stating an ideal that he proceeds to demolish, asserting '. . . since brevity is the soul of wit, /And tediousness the limbs and outward nourishes, /I will be brief, and then goes on to use such verbiage as 'Mad call I it, for to define true madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad?' (2.2.93-94). When this amusing long-windedness is challenged by the Queen's request for 'More matter with less art', Polonius replies with unwitting candour, 'Madam, I swear I use no art at all' (2.2.95-96). The passage, in which Polonius repeatedly interrupts himself and loses his train of thought, parodies a popular tendency of the day to overelaborate rhetoric, and it softens the portrait of Hamlet's victim. In creating Polonius, Shakespeare may have been influenced by the Pantaloon, a comically windy moraliser from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte.

Polonius appears as Corambis in the Ql edition of the play, and scholars believe that this reflects the name of the analogous character in Shakespeare's chief source, the UR-HAMLET. Shakespeare often changed the names in his sources for no particular reason, but here he may have wished to avoid using the caricature probably intended in the Ur-Hamlet. However, the name Polonius itself makes a clear reference to Poland, also known as Polonia in Elizabethan England. Scholars believe that the playwright probably intended an allusion to one of the play's minor sources, a well-known book on good government. The Counsellor (1598), an English translation from the Latin work of a Polish statesman.  

HORATIO

Horatio is the friend and confidant of Prince Hamlet. Horatio is the one person in Hamlet's world whom the prince values and trusts. With Horatio he can speak freely, and in doing so he demonstrates the evolution of his emotions. Further, the presence of Horatio lessens Hamlet's otherwise total alienation and permits relief—for him and for us—from the heightened tension that characterizes his existence. 

Horatio is a calm and stoical figure whom Hamlet admires as 'A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards / Hast ta'en with equal thanks ... [a] man / That is not passion's slave' (3.2.67-72). He thus represents a Renaissance ideal—a person with the mental discipline to resist highly emotional responses, which were seen as evidence of humanity's fall from grace. This ideal was considerably influenced by the newly rediscovered Stoic philosophy of the classical world, and Horatio rightly thinks of himself as 'more an antique Roman than a Dane' (5.2.346). His restraint makes Horatio one who 'in suffering all, . . . suffers nothing' (3.2.66), and Hamlet, embattled by his own suffering, envies his friend's relative peace of mind. However, it is precisely his vulnerability that gives Hamlet's emotional odyssey the grandeur that makes it worth recording. Horatio is an admirable figure, but he does not spark our imagination or sympathies. 

Horatio knew Hamlet at school, as the prince makes plain in welcoming him from Wittenberg as a 'fellow student' (1.2.177), but otherwise his past is unclear. In 1.1 he seems to be an intimate of the Danish court, but at several points—most notably when he must ask if musical accompaniment to drinking toasts is 'a custom' (1.4.12)—he appears to be unfamiliar with local ways. Horatio's status in Denmark—Danish nobleman or foreign visitor—is an example of the many problematic points in Hamlet that scholarship cannot resolve. Shakespeare probably simply formulated the character in different lights as he composed the drama and did not concern himself with the minor contradictions that resulted, as was apparently his habit throughout the plays.

LAERTES

Laertes Character in Hamlet, son of Polonius, who seeks vengeance against Hamlet for his father's murder. Laertes is placed in direct contrast with Hamlet by the fact that each seeks and finally achieves revenge for his father's murder, although they do so in very different ways. Laertes is distinctly unheroic. He stoops to fraud and poison with no thought for consequences or morality. Yet at the close of the play he regrets his underhandedness, offers forgiveness in place of vengeance, and is himself forgiven.

Laertes is shallow and immature, as shown by the trite moralizing that inspires his insistence in 1.3 that Ophelia distrust Hamlet's love and by his rhetorical and exaggerated responses to his sister's insanity and death in 5.1. As an avenger, he is easily manipulated in 4.5 by the King, who dissuades him from his rebellion with smooth talk about the divine right of kings. He gives no thought to honor as he accepts with grim glee the King's suggestion of a rigged fencing match, adding the idea of poisoning his sword. Moreover, he is thoughtlessly bold, prepared to sacrifice the peace of the country and his own salvation 'Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! /1 dare damnation' (4.5.132-133), he bellows—to satisfy his rage.

Yet in the end Laertes begs to 'exchange forgiveness' (5.2.334) with Hamlet, and he admits that he is 'justly kili'd with mine own treachery' (5.2.313). 'The King—the King's to blame' (5.2.326), he cries, and, as he renounces his revenge, Laertes shifts the moral balance of the play in its last moments, leaving the King as the sole focus of evil. Laertes and Hamlet each kill his father's killer, while each forgives, and is forgiven by, his own killer. Contrasted earlier in the play—in their differing relationships with Ophelia, in Laertes' return to university while Hamlet is detained, in the contrast of a father's 'double blessing' (1.3.53) for Laertes and Hamlet's father's death and reappearance as the Ghost—they come together at its close to represent the conjunction of good and evil in humanity, a fact whose acceptance is the play's major theme.

VOLTIMAND

Voltemand (Voltimand, Valtemand) is an ambassador to the King of Norway from the King of Denmark. In 1.2 Voltemand and Cornelius are appointed to deliver the King's message demanding that the Norwegian king's nephew, Fortinbras, who is preparing an invasion of Denmark be restrained. The two ambassadors return in 2 2 and Voltemand delivers a document of agreement that he summarizes in courtly language. The episode introduces the audience to Fortinbras while demonstrating the state of national crisis in which the play takes place.  

This character's name was spelled both Voltemand and Valtemand in the most authoritative early edition of the play (Q2, 1604); Voltumand and Voltemar appear in early editions- The second Folio edition (1632) used Voltimand, and this became the established practice until recently, when a compromise version became popular. In any form it is a corruption of Valdemar, the name of several Danish kings.

CORNELIUS

Cornelius is an ambassador to the King of Norway from the King of Denmark. In 1 2 Cornelius and Voltemand are appointed to carry a message to Norway. The two ambassadors return in 2.2, and Voltemand reports Norway's reply.  Cornelius barely speaks and serves only to flesh out the play's presentation of courtly diplomacy.

ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN

Two characters in Hamlet, courtiers who assist the King of Denmark in his plots against Hamlet.  Only once, and only in some editions, does one appear without the other.  So familiar as a couple, and so similar to each other are this pair, that they are best dealt with as a unit. 

We first encounter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the King recruits them to spy on Hamlet in 2.2, where he refers to them as the prince's childhood friends. They respond in the smooth and unctuous language of courtiers, assenting readily and thus establishing themselves immediately as toadies. When they first encounter Hamlet, he sees them as his 'excellent good friends' (2.2.224), but they will not 'deal justly' (2.2.276) with him about their mission from the King, which he has guessed, and he realises that he in fact lacks allies, except Horatio. This disappointment triggers his impressive monologue on depression (2.2.295-310). As foils to Horatio, the courtiers point up Hamlet's alienation. As agents of the rottenness that infects the Danish court, they help establish a polarity between the prince and the King. 

Hamlet quickly ends friendly relations with the two courtiers, to their eventual doom. When they summon him to a meeting with his mother, he dismisses them by coldly using the royal 'we' for the only time in the play (3.2.324-325). He speaks of them to his mother as 'my two schoolfellows, / Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd' (3.4.205). His distrust of them leads to his discovery of the documents ordering his execution in England and his plot to send the courtiers to this fate in his stead. Their deaths are bluntly reported in 5.2.376: 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead'. 

This line was to provide the title for Tom Stoppard's 1967 comedy of existential dread. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead the two courtiers are innocent, facing death in a play they know nothing about, and the question of their innocence in Hamlet is often raised. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern almost certainly did not know of the King's deadly plot and may thus be seen as innocent victims of Hamlet's counterstroke.  However, the two have unquestionably been the willing allies of the King; Hamlet has long recognized them as such and can say 'They are not near my conscience, their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow' (5.2.58-59). The playwright plainly expects us to see the poetic justice in their end; the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reflects their involvement in the evil environment of the Danish court. 

Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were notable Danish family names of the 16th century; it is recorded that at the Danish royal coronation of 1596, fully one-tenth of the aristocratic participants bore one name or the other. Moreover, several students of each name were enrolled in the university at Wittenberg—the alma mater of both Hamlet and the two courtiers—in the 1590s. Shakespeare was surely as delighted as we are by the faintly comical tone conveyed by the combination of these grand names (see, e.g., 2.2.33-34), but they also help to convey the foreignness of the play's locale.

OSRIC

Osric is a character in Hamlet, a foppish nobleman in the court of King  Claudius of Denmark. In 5.2 Osric carries the King's request that Hamlet meet Laertes in a fencing match adding that the King has made a wager on Hamlet. Osric's highly mannered language and behavior inspire Hamlet's amused derision, and the prince mocks the messenger, demonstrating the ease with which the courtier can be made to agree to contradictory assertions and making fun of his high-flown language. Osric later umpires the fencing match, though no further attention is paid to him. 

Osric functions as comic relief in the face of the King's rapidly unfolding plot against Hamlet, which hinges on the fencing match. Further, the distraction offered by Osric subtly suggests Hamlet's own detachment from the danger that threatens him. The prince's bemused handling of the silly fop is reminiscent of his healthy appreciation of Yorick in 5.1. He is no longer in the grip of grief, and, newly aware of the importance of providence in human affairs. Hamlet can enjoy Osric. Osric is an ancient Anglo-Saxon name that was still used occasionally in Shakespeare's day.

Gentlemen

Gentleman are either of two minor characters in Cymbeline, noblemen at King Cymbeline’s court. In 1 1 the First Gentleman tells the Second Gentleman about the marriage of the king's daughter, Imogen, to Posthumus, a poor but noble youth who has been banished from Britain because the king had wanted Imogen to marry the boorish Cloten. He adds that Imogen is the king's only child, other than two lost sons, kidnapped 20 years earlier and never recovered. The First Gentleman's excitement is clear in his hurried speech This stirs interest in the audience, though his companion merely punctuates his monologue with brief questions. The episode, which fills the whole of the play's first scene, establishes the basic situation of the plot.

Priest

Priest is the officiating clergyman at Ophelia funeral. In 5.1 the Priest denies Ophelia the full ceremony because her death appears to have been a suicide. He asserts that even an abbreviated service is too much—only 'great command' (5.1.221), presumably King Claudius', has made it possible—and suggests that, instead of prayers, 'shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown on her' (5.1.224). He insists that the rites for the dead would be profaned if Ophelia received them. This ugly episode heralds the mood of gloom and anger that dominates the conclusion of the play.  In some editions of the play the Priest is called the Doctor of Divinity, based on the speech heading 'Doct.', used for both of his speeches in the Q2 edition (1604). Some scholars conjecture that this makes him a Protestant.

MARCELLUS

Marcellus is guard at Elsinore and with Barnardo, has seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father before the opening of the play. In 1.1 they tell Horatio about the spirit, and in 1.2 Hamlet is informed as well. Marcellus accompanies Hamlet and Horatio when they encounter the Ghost in 1.4; he and Horatio fearfully attempt to dissuade Hamlet from following it, and in 1.5 Hamlet swears them to secrecy. Speculating on the cause of the phenomenon, Marcellus utters the famous observation 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.4.90). Scholars believe that the Bad Quarto of Hamlet (Ql, 1603) was recorded by an actor who had played Marcellus, since that role is the only one whose dialogue is very accurately rendered there.

BERNARDO

Bernardo is an Elsinore guard who with Marecellus have seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father before the play begins. In 1.1 they introduce Hamlet's friend Horatio to the phenomenon. When the three tell Hamlet about the spirit in 1.2, Barnardo barely speaks, and when Hamlet accompanies Horatio and Marcellus to encounter the Ghost in 1.4, Barnardo has disappeared from the play.

FRANCISCO

Francisco is a sentry on the walls of the castle at Elsinore. Francisco is relieved from duty by Barnardo at the opening of 1.1, as the scene's locale is established. He declares himself1 sick at heart' (1.1.9), suggesting immediately that something is amiss in the play's world.

REYNALDO

Reynaldo is a servant of Polonius. In 2.l Reynaldo is assigned to spy on his master's son, Laertes, who is studying in Paris, to make sure he is not engaging in 'such wanton, wild, and usual slips / As are companions . . . / To youth and liberty' (3.2.22-24). Reynaldo hears out his employer's long-winded instructions and departs, disappearing from the play. 

This brief episode humorously illustrates the corrupt moral tone of Hamlet’s Denmark, paralleling the later, more sinister use of spies—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--by the King. It also displays the intrusiveness and love of spying that eventually bring Polonius to his death. Reynaldo is clearly more sensible than his master, hesitating at times over his orders, but he has little real personality. 

In the Bad Quarto of Hamlet, Reynaldo is named Montano and Polonius, Corambis. Scholars speculate that these names may reflect a satirical intention in the creation of Polonius and Reynaldo—either in Shakespeare's original conception or in his source,  the UR-HAMLET—that the playwright decided not to pursue.

First Player

First Player is the leading member of the Players, a traveling company of actors who visit Elsinore and perform before the court of King Claudius. In 2.2 Hamlet greets the Players with enthusiasm and requests that the First Player recite a speech he remembers hearing him deliver in a play. Hamlet begins the speech, and the First Player takes it up; it is a highly dramatic account of an episode in the Trojan War, the vengeful killing of King Priam by Pyrrhus, followed by the grief of Queen Hecuba. The First Player's fine recital is testified to by Polonius, who observes approvingly that he has 'turned his colour and has tears in's eyes' (2.2.515-516), effects that were conventionally associated with fine acting in a tradition extending back to Plato. The First Player receives Hamlet's instructions to stage The Murder of Gonzago before the court in 2.2.531-536, and he presumably appears as the Player King in the playlet.        

Player King

Player King is the character in The Murder of Gonzago, the playlet presented within Hamlet. In 3.2 the Players stage a play in which the Player King anticipates that his wife, the Player Queen, will remarry if he dies, despite her protests to the contrary. Then he is murdered by Lucianus, who pours poison in his ear while he sleeps. This scenario resembles the actual murder of Hamlet’s father by King Claudius—as the Ghost has recounted it the prince—and the King reacts to it with great distress, fleeing from the room. Thus, as he had planned, Hamlet is presented with proof that the Ghost had told the truth. The Player King speaks in a highly rhetorical style that distances the play within a play from the action of the play itself, emphasizing its artificiality. The part of the Player King is presumably taken by the First Player, who demonstrates his dramatic gifts when the Players first arrive at Elsinore in 2.2.

Player Queen

Player Queen Character in The Murder of Gonzago, the playlet presented within Hamlet. In 3.2 the Players perform before the court of King Claudius. Following Hamlet’s instructions, they stage a play in which the Player Queen assures her husband, the Player King, that she will never remarry if he dies before her. He insists that she will; in the next scene he is murdered. The play parallels the murder of Hamlet's father by the King and the remarriage of his mother, the Queen, so it is obvious that the Player Queen's part would include her marriage to the killer. However, the performance is interrupted by the King's guilty reaction, and she never reappears. The Player Queen is merely a symbolic character. Her highly rhetorical diction helps to emphasize the extreme artificiality of the play within a play.

LUCIANUS

Lucianus is a character in The Murder of Gonzago, the playlet presented within Hamlet. In 3.2 the Players, following Hamlet’s instructions, perform before the court of King Claudius. In their play Lucianus murders the Player King by pouring poison in his ear, paralleling the murder of Hamlet's father by the real King. The play is interrupted by the King's guilty response—according to Hamlet's plan—and Lucianus does not get to complete his role, which would have involved marrying the Player Queen. Significantly, Lucianus is the nephew of the king he kills—not the brother, as a strict analogy with Claudius' crime would require—and thus he presents to the King not only the image of himself as murderer but also that of Hamlet as avenger. Lucianus' only lines—a brief address to his poison 'of midnight weeds collected' (3.2.251)—are in a highly rhetorical style that is designed to highlight the artificiality of the play within a play.

First Clown

 

Grave-digger (First Clown, First Grave-digger) Minor character in Hamlet, the digger of Ophelia’s grave. At the opening of 5.1, the Grave-digger talks with his friend, called the Other, in a comical series of exchanges on suicide, the law, and the profession of grave-digging. Hamlet, meditating with Horatio in the graveyard, speaks with the Grave-digger, who gives flip and enigmatic answers to his questions. In the course of describing the decomposition of corpses, he presents the prince with the skull of the late court jester, Yorick. This plunges Hamlet into another conversation with Horatio, and the Gravedigger does not speak again. 

This scene does not further the plot; indeed, it quite distinctly delays development, providing some needed comic relief in the face of the rapidly approaching climax. The Grave-digger also serves as a subtle commentator on the main action, rather like a Chorus. He frankly suggests the possibility of Ophelia's suicide, and his equally honest and humorous attitude to the world of the aristocrats and 'great folk [who] have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even-Christen' (5.1. 27-29) reminds us of the extent to which intrigue infects Hamlet's world. 

Most important, the Grave-digger's remarks and behavior reflect the play's attitude towards death: it is the normal human fate to die. The Grave-digger's job makes this an everyday fact rather than a philosophical observation. At a crucial point in the play, his demeanour, both prosaic and comical, helps to make clear to the audience that Hamlet's meditations on death no longer reflect the depression and grief that characterized him in Acts 1-4 but are rather the healthy recognition that death and decay are parts of life that must be accepted. 

The Grave-digger is addressed by his companion as 'Goodman Delver' (5.1.14), which may be his surname preceded by the honorific 'Goodman' (roughly equivalent to 'Mister'), or it may simply refer to his occupation as a digger. In his uneducated but knowing humor, he is a good instance of a character type, the rustic Clown and some editions, including the earliest ones, designate him accordingly in stage directions and speech headings.

Second Clown

Other (Other Clown, Second Clown, Second Grave. digger) the Grave-Digger’s friend. The Other is a straight man whose simple remarks and questions give rise to the ripostes of his companion in 5.1.1-60. Although theatrical tradition dating to the 17th century makes the Other—his designation in early editions of the play—a second grave-digger, some modern editors point out that he seems to belong to another, unspecified profession when he addresses the Grave-digger in 5.1.14. Like the Grave-digger, the Other is a Clown, and some editions identify him accordingly in stage directions and speech-headings.

FORTINBRAS

Fortinbras is  Prince of Norway and enemy of Denmark. Although he does not appear until 4.4, Fortinbras is described in 1.1.98-107 as a hot-blooded young warrior intent on recapturing lands taken from Norway after the combat in which his father, the late King of Norway, was killed by Hamlet’s father, the late King of Denmark. Thus he is immediately established as a parallel figure to Hamlet, one who is also compelled to avenge his father's death. Fortinbras' brief appearance in 4.4 on his way to an invasion of neighboring Poland energizes Hamlet, who sees in this war, directed at no more than 'a little patch of ground ... a straw ... an eggshell' (4.4.18, 26, 53), a direct and shaming contrast to his own inaction in taking revenge against his father's murderer, King Claudius. When Hamlet, nearing death at the play's end, learns that Fortinbras is returning from Poland, he proclaims him heir to the crown of Denmark. When he arrives, Fortinbras takes command and orders a military funeral for Hamlet. 

While Fortinbras' example inspires Hamlet to fierce declarations—'My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth' (4.4.66)—Hamlet's rhetoric is an overreaction to a situation that is not in fact analogous to his own. As the play unfolds. Hamlet comes to realize that an acceptance of fate and its evils is the only way to understand human life; within this context, Fortinbras, who works his will in the world and is doubtless uninterested in such philosophical matters, is clearly a lesser figure. Still, his stalwart resolution and military valour—reminiscent of Shakespeare's HENRY V—are not only admirable .-but also stand in important contrast to the evil and debased intrigue of Hamlet's world. 

When Fortinbras appears after Hamlet's death in 5.2, he reminds us that he comes as a hostile power, declaring that he will claim his revenge as his 'vantage doth invite' (5.2.395), and we realise that Claudius' evil has damaged his kingdom to the extent that an outsider has taken over. Thus Fortinbras symbolizes a lesson in political morality that Shakespeare offered in several plays (e.g., Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, KingLear): personal evil in powerful members of society will weaken the state as a whole, often resulting in a surrender of sovereignty to another country.

A Captain

Captain an officer in the Norwegian army of Prince Fortinbras. In 4.4 the Captain tells Hamlet of Fortinbras' march with 20,000 soldiers to conquer a small, valueless parcel of land in Poland. Shakespeare may take an ironical stance towards the folly of war in these brief and straight forward lines, but Hamlet seems to accept Fortinbras' goal as reasonable, responding to the Captain's account only by comparing his own scruples and hesitations with the unthinking commitment of the soldiers, who will die fighting for so small a prize. Thus the incident emphasizes Hamlet's concern with his failure to avenge his father's death—the central strand of the play's plot—and reminds us of Fortinbras' strength, which will assume greater importance at the end of the play.

First Ambassador

Ambassador is an emissary from England to Denmark. The Ambassador arrives at the Danish court, in 5.2, after the deaths of the King, the Queen, Laertes, and Hamlet. He reports on the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, thereby completing an unfinished element in the play's plot. With Fortinbras, the Ambassador offers an outsider's shocked view of the bloody collapse of Denmark's monarchy, reinforcing the play's central theme that evil has a corrupting influence that spreads far beyond its immediate consequences.

GERTRUDE

Queen is Hamlet’s mother, who has married the brother, successor, and murderer other late husband, the King of Denmark. Hamlet is horrified by the Queen's acceptance, soon after her husband's death, of 'incestuous sheets' (1.2.157), and he is moved to conclude, 'Frailty, thy name is woman' (1.2.146). His disgust at her behavior is heightened when he learns from the Ghost, in 1.5.42-52, that she had been the lover of Claudius, the new King, before he had killed Hamlet's father. Hamlet's detestation of his mother's part in these evils is transformed into a revulsion against women in general and against the love—and sex—that they offer, which lead only to the creation of more humanity and thus more wickedness. His own beloved, Ophelia, tragically comes to bear the brunt of the prince's misogyny.

Although the Queen provides an example of the evil that infects Denmark, she herself is a somewhat faceless character. She is basically evil through weakness rather than inclination. The Ghost attributes her wickedness to Claudius and tells Hamlet to exclude her from his revenge—'Leave her to heaven' (1.5.86). In her main scene, in which Hamlet repudiates her for her adultery and her acceptance of the King as a husband, she acknowledges her guilt, crying out that her soul is contaminated by '. . . such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct' (3.4.90-91). After Hamlet leaves and the King returns in 4.1, the Queen resumes her role as his accomplice. But in 5.2, when the Queen turns on her husband and cries out a warning to Hamlet as she dies, we may suppose that her son has had some effect on her.

OPHELIA

Ophelia is the lover of Prince Hamlet. In 1.3 Ophelia's brother, Laertes, cautions Ophelia against believing Hamlet's professions of love, and her father, Polonius, forbids her to see him. A demure and obedient daughter, Ophelia returns Hamlet's letters, and, under the pressures of the main plot, Hamlet turns on her with a seemingly insane revulsion against women in general and her in particular. She reports his behavior in 2.1 and encounters it in even more virulent form in 3.1. After her former lover kills her father, Ophelia becomes insane, babbling about funerals and singing scraps of songs in 4.5. Her death by drowning is reported by the Queen in 4.7, and her funeral in 5.1—abbreviated by the Priest because the death seems a suicide_triggers an encounter between Hamlet and Laertes that foreshadows the play's climax. 

Ophelia's nature is abundantly affectionate; her wounded but faithful love—both for her father and for Hamlet—makes her one of the most touching of Shakespeare's characters. As Laertes observes about Ophelia's lunacy: 'where [love] is fine / It sends some precious instance of itself / After the thing it loves' (4.5.161-163). He refers to her love for the dead Polonius, which has caused her to send herself figuratively (and later literally) after him to a world beyond life, but the remark is equally appropriate to her love for Hamlet. 

However, the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is not a love story, for Hamlet has rejected love. He loved Ophelia before the play opens, as is attested first by her touching recollection of his gifts and the 'words of so sweet breath compos'd / As made the things more rich' (3.1.98-99) and then by his admission at her funeral in 5.1.264-266. He remains sexually attracted to her—as is shown by his obscene jesting in 3.2.108-117—but he has displaced on her much of his anger with his mother, the Queen. She has become for him simply a stimulus for his disgust with women and sex, and he no longer really sees her as an actual person. Ophelia's fate is thus an outgrowth of Hamlet's emotional collapse; not only is her life diminished—and ultimately destroyed—by his actions, but she is a measure of what he has lost through his mistaken vision of the world. 

Ophelia's insanity is triggered by the crushing of her love for Hamlet and then intensified by the loss of her father to Hamlet's madness. Her pathetic ravings in 4.5 are concerned with lost loves and death, the grim realities that have broken her mind. She cannot absorb the conflict implicit in loving both her father and his murderer. Her bawdy songs reflect the lusts of the outside world, of which she has no experience but that have contributed to her plight. The flowers she obsessively alludes to, themselves symbols of innocence, are poignant emblems of her own youth and inability to deal with the harsh world of the play. 

While the Queen's description of Ophelia's drowning in 4.7.165-182 permits us to view it as accidental—a tree branch broke as she fell—she also reports that the victim made no effort to save herself.  In 5.1 the Grave-Digger and the Priest view her as a suicide, and her death is certainly a result other madness. But her insanity is the consequence of the actions of others, and Ophelia is unquestionably a victim of the tragic events that beset Denmark throughout the play. 

Some scholars believe that Ophelia's name—which means 'succor' in Greek, a seemingly inappropriate designation for so victimised a character—may have been used in error instead of Aphelia, meaning 'simplicity' or 'innocence'. Both names were rare in Shakespeare's time.

Lord

Lord is a member of the court of the King of Denmark. In 4.3 the Lords provide an audience for the King's remarks on the danger of Prince Hamlet’s madness. In 5.1 they attend the funeral of Ophelia and help break up the fight between Hamlet and Laertes. In 5.2 one of the Lords delivers a request from the Queen that Hamlet make peace with Laertes before their upcoming fencing match, and the Lords are presumably among the crowd of courtiers—'all the State' in the stage direction at 5.2.220—who witness that contest. As anonymous onlookers, the Lords heighten our sense of Hamlet's isolation, and they also contribute to a sense of the stratified social world in which the prince lives.

First Sailor

Sailors are any bearers of a letter to Horatio. In 4.6 a group of Sailors bring Horatio a message from Prince Hamlet. The First Sailor speaks for them all; he seems to lack sophistication because he delivers the missive and afterwards ascertains Horatio's identity. Horatio reads the message aloud, in an aside, and we realize that the Sailors are probably part of the pirate crew mentioned in it. Horatio leaves with them to find the prince. The episode announces Hamlet's return to Denmark and the approach of the play's climax.

Messenger

The Messenger brings the King of Denmark news that Laertes has raised a rebellion and is approaching. His hysteria emphasizes the degree of disruption that the play's developments have produced. In a calmer mood the Messenger brings the King letters from Hamlet in 4.7.

Ghost

Ghost is the spirit of the murdered King of Denmark, Hamlet’s late father. The Ghost, which has been silent in its appearances before the play opens and in 1.1 and 1.4, speaks to Hamlet in 1.5, revealing the secret of his death—'Murder most foul' (1.5.27) at the hands of his brother, Claudius, the present KING (5)—and insisting that Hamlet exact revenge. This demand establishes the stress that disturbs Hamlet throughout the play. The Ghost reappears in 3.4 to remind Hamlet that he has not yet accomplished his revenge, thereby increasing the pressure on the prince. 

The Ghost is clearly an awesome presence, as the responses of Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio make clear in 1.1 and 1.4, and we are plainly meant to be impressed by Hamlet's bravery in speaking to it. At first, Hamlet cannot be sure whether it is 'a spirit of health or goblin damn'd' (1.4.40), and his doubts recur when he suspects that its message may be a lie that 'Abuses me to damn me' (2.2.599). Only Claudius' reaction to the playlet re-enacting the murder makes clear that the Ghost is to be trusted. 

The Ghost pushes Hamlet to face the trauma of his father's murder and his mother's acceptance of the murderer. It keeps his anguish sharp. However, the Ghost is absent at the end of the drama. It has represented the emotional demands of Hamlet's grief and despair; when Act 5 offers the play's reconciliation of good and evil, the Ghost has no further function. 

Belief in ghosts was common in Shakespeare's world—King James I who was regarded as a competent writer on religious matters, wrote a treatise on their characteristics—though many educated people regarded such beliefs as unfounded superstition. Shakespeare's own opinion cannot be known, for the only evidence is the attitudes he ascribes to his fictional characters; Hamlet certainly accepts the reality of the spirit, doubting only its purposes for a time. In any case, a ghost was a common feature of the Revenge Play, a popular genre in the early 17th century, and Shakespeare took the Ghost in Hamlet from one such work, the UR-Hamlet.

   

 

To view other Hamlet sections:

Main Play Page     Play Text    Scene by Scene Synopsis 

   Character Directory     Commentary 

 

To view the other Plays click below:

By  Comedies    Histories    Romances    Tragedies

All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
Cymbeline Edward III Hamlet Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV, Part 2 Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Part 2 Henry VI, Part 3 Henry VIII Julius Caesar King John
King Lear Love's Labours Lost Love's Labours Wonne Macbeth Measure for Measure Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet Sir Thomas More Taming of the Shrew The Tempest Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsman The Winter's Tale

 

To view other Shakespeare Library sections:

Biography     Plays     Poems     Sonnets     Theaters     Shake Links 

 

 
Send mail to jciccarelli@hudsonshakespeare.org with questions or comments about this web site.
[Home]  [Upcoming Shows]  [HSC Venues]  [Past Productions]  [Articles] [HSC Programs]
 [Shakespeare Library] [Actor Resources]   [Contact Us]  [Links]  [Site Map]